Friday, May 1, 2009

What Would Ted Gillen Do?

Photo from Asbury Park Press. Staff photo: Doug Hood.

Walk through the hallways of Toms River High School East in Toms River, NJ and you’ll get a good sense of how popular Ted Gillen is at his old school. Student Council fliers feature a picture of him with the caption “What would Ted Gillen do?” His MetroStars jersey is signed and hung near the gym. He was elected to the Toms River Schools Athletic Hall of Fame.

Gillen, a special education teacher and head coach of the boys’ soccer team at East, takes his cult icon status in stride.

“To think I was once just a punk walking these hallways to now having my picture hung up,” he said. “Luck has a lot to do with it and it’s pretty humbling.”

Gillen’s storied career began at the age of four in the soccer hotbed of Kearney, NJ, when he saw his older brother play. Two years later they moved to Toms River, where Ted began to make a name for himself.

“Ted was a hard worker and a natural leader. He wasn’t big or strong, but he worked very hard, especially on his own time, to be a great player,” said his high school coach John Crowley. “Everything he accomplished was a result of his dedication.”

The defender was captain his senior season when East won the New Jersey Group IV championship, the only time in school history. He was named first-team All-State.

“It was my crowning achievement up to that point,” Gillen said. “It proved to be a launching pad for me. I rode a wave of confidence and success from that.”

Gillen chose to play at Penn State University. In June of 1988, at 19, Gillen was given the opportunity to join the national team. He started three games, alongside future American stars Tony Meola and Jeff Agoos.

“It was incredible to represent my country. It’s something I’ll never forget. They’re playing the national anthem and it’s for you,” he said. “My dreams became bigger. It elevated my status. It also was a fair amount of responsibility. How to act became very important.”

Back at PSU, Gillen became a team captain and was selected to the Mid-Atlantic Region All-American second team his junior year and first-team as a senior. After college though, he became a soccer nomad. Gillen played for four semi-pro teams between 1990 and 1993. He also became an assistant coach, joining the James Madison University staff while he completed his master’s degree in business, and then returning to Penn State. Gillen would still find his way into practicing with the teams.

“Coaching was an excuse to keep playing,” he said. “I was still hoping to get another national team call-up.”

Originally told he would be selected to the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, the competition became a U-23 tournament and Gillen was too old.

In 1995 Gillen began to hear whispers about a new professional league, Major League Soccer. Whispers came to fruition and Gillen felt the opportunity was a chance to “prolong the inevitable”.

“There was an open invitation to tryouts in the Star-Ledger. There were over 600 guys there,” he said. “I was still extremely fit and they voted me the number one guy at the try-out.”

Gillen was selected by the New York/ New Jersey MetroStars in the sixth round of the inaugural MLS draft. His season was a roller-coaster ride.

“I blew out my hamstring early in the year, played well in the middle of the year, but by the end of the year I fizzled and was in the dog house,” Gillen said. “I kind of lost a little fire. I wasn’t making any money and felt no more national team call-ups were in my future. I decided it was time to get a job.”

While the season hadn’t gone as he’d hoped, Gillen was viewed as a local hero for youth soccer players.

“There was excitement throughout all the clubs in the area. Kids could identify with a local player in MLS,” said Crowley. “We took a bus trip to see him play against the L.A. Galaxy. 60,000 people were there at the game and Ted was starting at left back. I think anyone involved in Shore area soccer was really proud that day.”

Gillen took a job with Merrill Lynch and traveled, but never was as happy as when he was on the field.

“The more time I was away from home, the more I missed it,” he said. “The two best places for me were Penn State and the Jersey Shore. I don’t know if I’d find happiness anywhere else.”

Gillen got his special education certification and returned home. His first high school coaching job was with the girl’s team at Toms River North. He would soon find himself replacing his former coach at East. Between 2001 and 2003, the boys’ team had stalled, going 20-29-4, and Crowley retired after the 2003 season.

“It was a big challenge,” Gillen said. “The program had been down. I was focused on resurrecting it.”

The turnaround was quick. In his tenure, East has gone 62-25-14, won two Shore Conference Class A-South division championships, been Shore Conference Tournament semi-finalists twice—once advancing to the championship—and NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV finalists twice. The team has adapted Gillen’s defensive mindset, allowing only 47 goals in 63 contests over the past three years.

“Coach Gillen was the best coach I have ever had,” said former goalkeeper Brad Stockton, who now plays at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah, NJ. “In my career with Teddy we beat many teams that were way more talented than we were but in no way were they better coached or closer of a team then we were, and that is all due to Teddy Gillen.”

The Jersey Shore youth have followed Gillen throughout his career and he has returned to his roots to help them achieve even more than he has. They don’t have to go far to find out exactly what Ted Gillen would do.


  1. Ted Gillen...My hero!
    Best Coach I have ever had!

  2. Ted Gillen is a icon in the Toms River area. He is one of the most supportive and hardworking coaches I've ever seen. His ability to teach players the game at a high level contributes to his success on the field. He is truly one of the best coaches around New Jersey in any sport. I'm proud to have called him my coach for the two years I played under him. I owe a lot of my growth as a player and a person to him. Keep winning coach, you deserve it.

  3. Great piece Phil!

  4. ahhhhh.....crrrrhombie! hope you're well...

  5. we want CZ to be head coach. him and his vette.